REVIEW: Suicide Squad

2 08 2016

At the time of this review’s publication, there are a whopping seven untitled DC Comics films with dates on the calendar but no titles announced. It seems likely that at least one, if not more, of those slots will be filled by a character from “Suicide Squad.” The latest ten-car-pileup from the comic book studio plays like an extended audition for a standalone film. Individual characters distinguish themselves, sure, but they do so by essentially acting in little regard to the plot and tone around them.

This is the most obvious with the film’s resident crazies, Jared Leto’s The Joker and Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. The former, never quite fully breaking from the iconic Heath Ledger performance, feels like he waltzed his way out of a Miley Cyrus video. The latter, a rainbow bomb-pop comes to life, breaks free to some extent and makes for raucous fun. But most of Harley’s shining moments come in cutaways or disruptive asides. Robbie does not feed off the energy in the scene; she mostly just crushes the line she’s been given.

All the internal one-upmanship feels oddly fitting for a film whose sole purpose appears to be one-upping Marvel. “Suicide Squad” feels like the inevitable byproduct of a DC boardroom who decided to blend their favorite parts of unlikely smash hits “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Deadpool,” which they then serve in a neon-lit package. The film has smart-mouthed, villainous protagonists who form an unlikely coalition to save the world, and their romp is set to a Spotify playlist of frequently used trailer songs. (The fact that “Spirit in the Sky” made it onto the soundtrack is as plagiaristic as Melania Trump’s RNC speech.)

“Suicide Squad” is an emblematic film for the kind of products made by committees and algorithms as opposed to champions of artists. DC and Warner Bros. know what has worked for these types of films in the past, and they are not necessarily wrong to assume that audiences want something like it. Indeed, “Suicide Squad” works in fits and spurts where writer/director David Ayer’s dark comedic or war battle sensibilities can come through. But more often than not, he is forced to do too much in too little time. And a good chunk of that overextension does not make it the kind of movie that another corporate committee will try to emulate in a year or two. C+2stars





REVIEW: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

1 03 2016

There is no requirement that a war film – or a film set in a war – grapple existentially or philosophically with that conflict. But, at the very least, it should at least make for more than just wallpaper for another narrative. Such is the case in Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” based on Kim Barker’s memoir about her experiences covering the dog days of the American presence in Afghanistan.

Very few people – except maybe a few U.S. senators – go to fictionalized accounts of wartime stories and expect the level of historical discourse that might accompany a documentary. (Looking for a great one about Afghanistan? Find “Restrepo” or “The Oath” online.) A certain level of simplification is expected, if not practically mandated to connect with moviegoers who might not know the locations of Iraq and Afghanistan on a globe. It’s not that “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” fails at providing context, like Michael Bay’s “13 Hours,” that proves so bothersome. It’s that the film doesn’t even try.

Were it not for the occasional gunshots and explosions, one could easily mistake the war zone of Afghanistan for any oppressive third-world country. Tina Fey’s protagonist Kim Barker bops around the “Ka-bubble” of Kabul less in search of a hard-hitting story and more in search of herself. She takes the wartime correspondent position in America’s Forgotten War as a means of rescuing herself from becoming forgotten as well. Facing a midlife crisis from her dead-end relationship and desk-bound career, she hops on the plane to Afghanistan with the same gusto of Elizabeth Gilbert in “Eat Pray Love.”

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REVIEW: Z for Zachariah

30 08 2015

Z for ZachariahIn Craig Zobel’s last film, 2012’s “Compliance,” the director showed the collapse of civilization and social order in a situation where tremendous external stress agents forced people into making unthinkable choices.  He returns to ponder similar questions of the base impulses guiding our actions in “Z for Zachariah,” albeit in an entirely different setting: a post-apocalyptic world.

Margot Robbie’s country girl Ann Burden thinks she may the last survivor of an unspecified nuclear disaster, somewhat because of her farm’s odd location in a valley but also due to an act of providence from God.  The serene, bucolic landscape soon welcomes a visitor in the form of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Loomis, a civil engineer who stumbles upon Ann’s place.  The two work together, albeit uneasily, to restore the harvest and even potentially regain electricity.

These scenes play out at a patient pace, at once stage-like in their delicacy but cinematic in their intimacy.  Zobel and editor Jane Rizzo find a way to stretch Nissar Modi’s script, which probably runs a roughly normal length (if not a little bit shorter), into something that feels practically like a miniseries.  The adult cousin of “The Last Man on Earth,” if you will.  At times, “Z for Zachariah” droops under the weight of its measured tone, but Zobel does impressively calibrate the picture to enervate without aggravating.

The film does get a shot of energy when Chris Pine’s Caleb emerges.  With his messy hair and scruffy beard, this marks the most unkempt character the normally Prince Charming-esque actor has played in a straight drama.  A bit of a love triangle emerges, sure, but not in a stereotypical kind of way.  (Since Caleb is a fellow believer, he has the clear upper hand.)  The desolately populated space around them reverts the dynamic between Caleb and Loomis to resemble that between Cain and Abel sparring for dominance.  These biblical undertones, as well as one of the most mature and nuanced portrayals of faith in recent memory, lend “Z for Zachariah” a thematic heft that helps it earn much of its restrained pacing.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: Focus

24 08 2015

When I was in middle school, Will Smith was the man.  Any conversation about movies seemed to inevitably drift towards his spotless record (most of us were too young to remember 1999’s “Wild Wild West”) at the box office and in quality.  His named practically guaranteed a fun ride.

Fast forward to today, where Smith is no longer the summer staple or inherently bankable star he once was.  Since 2008, he has only three non-cameo film roles: “Men in Black III” (admittedly, not terrible), “After Earth” (which I dutifully avoided like the plague), and now, “Focus.”  For someone who so seldom works these days, it seems unfathomable that this was the best Will Smith could do for a rare starring vehicle.

Writer/director duo Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s conman film has so little taste and flavor that it really needed Smith to bring his A-game.  But never has he appeared so off his game.  As Nicky, an aging pro in the field, Smith seems tired.  Not weary or exasperated like Paul Newman in similarly themed “The Sting.”  Just plain exhausted and out of gas.  His flair and charisma are completely missing in action.

The movie does not even boast any particularly exciting heist scenes or elaborately planned schemes that could help overcome this deficit.  All it really offers to offset Will Smith’s lusterless performance is Margot Robbie, who gets the chance to show that she has more to offer than the sex appeal and histrionics she was reduced to in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”  The movie is too boring to really make a definitive statement as to whether she is the real deal, but as Jess, she did make the difference between me turning off the film and seeing it through to a rather humdrum conclusion.  C2stars





REVIEW: The Wolf of Wall Street

11 01 2014

Sex. Cocaine. Hookers. Profanity. Quaaludes. Destruction. Money. Orgies. More profanity. More sex. More cocaine. More destruction. More money.

Normally these are the kinds of things that liven up a movie, but in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” it’s pretty much all that’s being served. The movie is three hours of high-intensity bacchanalia in the life and work of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort. With a piece being played at such a prolonged forte, it’s quite frankly an exhausting and draining film to watch. While obviously satirical and darkly comedic in tone, the sheer amount of repetition dulls outrageousness into monotony.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is not without its profound moments of insight, however. Yet I was so exhausted by the relentless onslaught of anarchical madness that I lacked the stamina to really analyze Belfort’s speeches and Scorsese’s curious stylistic choices. Screenwriter Terence Winter and Scorsese present Wall Street as a synecdoche for America, and I’d be curious to re-watch some scenes again and subject them to further criticism.

But that dissection is going to have to be on video or as YouTube clips because I simply don’t think I could sit through “The Wolf of Wall Street” in its entirety again. The film may not condone the behavior it presents on screen, yet it’s so drunk on its own energy it luxuriates in all these obscene shenanigans. It doesn’t really matter if Scorsese communicates disgust for Belfort’s actions; by including such a large volume of his antics, he glorifies Belfort’s narrative over those left ruined in his calamitous wake.

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